by Jessica Mokhiber
New Haven’s Common Ground High School recently celebrated the graduation of its 28-student class of 2014. There was an air of excitement typical of any graduation, but School Director Liz Cox noted that the evening was bittersweet.
Teachers at the 17-year-old charter school had the usual difficulty saying goodbye to their cherished students. At this public school of choice, more than 90 percent of the students head off to college this fall.
But this year’s graduation was an especially emotional one for the close-knit group of 28 graduating seniors. That’s because they were missing one of their own after their classmate Javier Martinez was shot and killed on December 28, 2013 in New Haven.
Javier left a big void in this small class.
His aunt, Katyria Sanchez, read a touching letter from Javier’s father congratulating his classmates and remembering his son. Javier was remembered as kind, intelligent, and a school leader. So much so that the school dedicated a wetland in his memory. During the ceremony, the school also posthumously awarded Javier’s two younger brothers with his diploma. One of those brothers will attend Common Ground this fall.
It was a somber moment indeed, but Javier’s tragedy also inspired the students to action. They spoke out against gun violence and promoted social justice in their graduation speeches.
Common Ground was one of the very first charter schools approved in Connecticut in the late nineties. The school focuses on caring for the environment, sustainability, and connecting students to the land. Gardens that are more like small farms adorn the landscape. The teachers here have educated their students, and have also cultivated in them the importance of being good stewards of the planet and its natural resources.
And Common Ground is posting excellent results. Its graduation rate is nearly ten points higher than Connecticut’s state average. The school was named one of the state’s top high schools in the prestigious U.S. News and World Report’s yearly education rankings. Last spring, the school was also honored as a Green Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education for its work in educating students about sustainability, reducing environmental impact, and promoting good health and wellness.
Common Ground’s students understood that they’ve had the opportunity to attend an extraordinary institution. Graduating senior Hailey O’Brien explained how the school was different, as she recounted the hiking trips with her teachers to usher in every new year at school. Hailey made clear that she wouldn’t have opportunities like these at another school.
A junior at the school, Michael Green-Kelsey, was in the crowd as he prepared to say goodbye to some of his friends in the senior class. He transferred in to Common Ground this year, after attending a public high school in Bridgeport that he says wasn’t meeting his needs. He said here everyone at the school is connected and accepting. He said it feels like a family.
The teachers at Common Ground spoke to the students with love and respect. It’s clear that they have high hopes for them and they have prepared them to reach high and accomplish their goals. One could sense the emotion as they said goodbye and wished their students the best in their futures – futures that are bright, thanks in large part to Common Ground.
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